Directed By: John Michael McDonagh
Written By: John Michael McDonagh
In 2012 writer and director John Michael McDonagh broke out worldwide with the Indie Action-Comedy The Guard. It’s story of an unapologetic Irish policemen teaming up with a fish out of water FBI Agent had all the initial makings of a classic 80’s buddy cop film. It took that cliché format and added some sharp orthodox absurdity to make something refreshing original.
In his latest film Calvary he is once again teaming up with veteran actor Brendan Gleeson to tell a story of a benevolent priest trying to come to terms with the ever-increasing cynical world around him. McDonagh blends his dark sense of humor with
melancholic storytelling to craft an enduring tale about the hardships faith sustains when hope is at its bleakest. It is a mediation of the immense restraint true forgiveness requires, and questions if mercy is sometimes too powerful of a gift to give. This is all led by a tremendous performance by Gleeson, who continues to demonstrate he is an actor who can simply do everything.
Gleeson plays Father James Lavelle a priest of a small town in Ireland that is apparently full of intriguing characters. During a confession someone threatens to kill Father James for the childhood abuse his trusted Priest put him through. Although Father James played no part in these heinous acts, this troubled man feels the only way to make it mean something is to kill an innocent. He gives James seven days to get his house in order before s this final judgment is enacted.
It is within this opening scene that we get our first indication of what a crucial part Gleeson will play in making this film work so effectively. In one long continues shot focused solely on Gleeson he goes from initial confusion to literal fear to a sympathetic state as he hears this disembodied voice crumble before him. Gleeson has a unique ability in the way he can distinctly express emotion without forcing the issue. Previously Gleeson has shown he can have that ferocious persona, but here he is much more reserved as he preserves his anger for specific moments. Here he is more of a gentle soul on a constant search for truth.
With the identity of his supposed future murderer unknown Father James continues on with life like he normally would, partially due to his disbelief the threat is legitimate. Father James is shown to be this mediating presence for his community that is full of disenfranchised figures stewing in anger. James episodically makes his way around the town assisting his followers with their troubles, while looking for clues to determine which one wishes to murder him.
McDonagh creates a very talky narrative, but it is with these meet ups that McDonagh demonstrates his skillfulness in constructing rich dialogue that focuses on some complex ethical inquires about the moral implications of faith. A rather poignant moment occurs with Father James speaks with a women who just lost her husband in a fatal car accident. It displayed the dichromatic aspect of faith. How tragedy can both shake ones beliefs, but also provide a level of comfort.
This discourse is thought-provoking as well as darkly comedic at times. While Calvary does not have the abundance of laughs that The Guard does, there are a number of subtle comedic elements that hold back the despondent tone from being too overbearing. Most of the comedy comes from the characters Father James encounters as he makes his way around the town that clearly works as a microcosm for Ireland’s current troubles.
Those characters include an eccentric playboy whose struggle to find happiness has led him to seek a quick fix from the church. The town butcher seeks assistance in getting over his cheating wife, who also may need help from her now abusive immigrant lover. Not all these characters work completely. A male prostitute played by Owen Sharpe feels out-of-place compared to the rest of the film. He talks like an outdated New York gangster and his flamboyant behavior was oddly stereotypical.
The strongest relationship occurs between Father Joe and his daughter play brilliantly by Kelly Reilly. Before Father Joe was Father Joe he was married and had a child. After the death of his wife he decided to become a priest, and as Kelly Reilly’s character indicates she ended up losing two parents for the price of one. Their relationship, while not ideal, is not full of bickering rather internal discovery. You can not ask for better when you have two brilliant actors portraying two very strong characters.
This year has been rather full of religious theme films. Calvary should never be lumped in with movies like Son of God, Heaven is for Real, or even God’s Not Dead. It is more artfully constructed and has a complete full picture view on religion and its impact. Those who are interested in theology could probably spend days dissecting the biblical metaphors that are littered throughout. At times those metaphors do leave loose ends as they appear solely designed as red hearings for the overarching mystery. Still, in only his second film John Michael McDonagh has shown he is quite the unique talent. With this being the second installment is a supposed trilogy it has me supremely excited for his next feature.